09.02.2011 - 18.02.2011 22 °C
The hills were on fire and my plans were up in flames also! On the 9th February my cousin Bunty showed me the newspaper headlines. I had my flight booked for Guwahati, the capital of India's biggest tea producing state - Assam. 10 days later I was due to take a sleeper train due west to Siliguri, the jumping off point for the most famous of hill stations - Darjeeling. I had dreams of trekking, sipping tea over the plantations and taking the famous steam train. Unfortunately all plans were were grounded at the station. Alas the sepratist movement in the region had been rioting, setting fire to Government buildings and calling for strike action. It is a shame really as once again the local economy will be crippled or weeks. It is also rather politically naive. A separate country would leave them being vulnerable to being invaded by the human rights dodging Chinese.
Enough politics. Never mind, my plans were redrawn and I decided to spend longer instead in the North East states, initially Meghalaya. These 8 states (if you count Sikkim) seem to have no relation to the rest of India. They originate from a different race as can be seen in their round faced Mongolian faces. They eat different food (including dog I am told), have a different religion (mainly Christian), dress differently, speak a different language and don't seem to do the Indian head wobble. Many of these states were out of bounds in the past due to guerrilla activities and tribal issues. Now they have even dropped the permit requirements for most states. So places are relatively safe if you follow advice.
The capital of Megalaya, Shillong is not the picture post card hill station that Manali or Shimla is in the North West. It is sprawling, hectic, noisy and scruffly although it has bags of character and I liked the place. Especially fascinating is the huge rabbit warren of a market. There are some great restaurants also.
After a couple of days in Shillong I took a shared taxi to what was, until recently the rainiest place in the world. However this is the dry season and I hardly saw a drop. On the road leading up to my destination Cherripungee you can see the sad effect of ruthless deforrestation and some see it turning ironically into a mountain dessert.
Bizzarely the town of Cherripungee is strewn with Presbyterian churches that were left by Welsh missionaries. Some of the tribal people where tartan. The lady I shared a taxi with also had a British connection, having lived in Birmingham for some time. She happened to be the wife of the joint Secretary of State for minority affairs. She herself is from the predominant Khasi tribe. She invited me to her family holiday place in Cherripungee for a cup of tea. Several days later I met up with her again. Only tea I assure you but I was concerned that her husbands previous post might have been minister in charge of jelously, torture and dismemberment.
Someone at the airport had given me a brochure of Cherripungee hill resort. It was really an after thought but I decided to stay. There were no rooms available but they put me in a tent for some relatively luxury camping. This resort sits 55 km from the bustle of Shillon and is at a height of 960 metres (I don't do feet sorry) Its a lovely family run low key resort, not alone and aloof. It shares a fairly broad ridge with some friendly local villages. I knew that this was a place to get my adrenalin fix. Together with a guide I did 3 consecutive challenging treks into the valley below. This meant a punishing walk back up. 2 of the walks included canyoning. In this context this is really just scrambling over rocks and bolders on the river bed. Some of the bolders seemed quite intimidating and I was reminded of the poster for the film 127 days. Fortunatley I was carrying with me my swiss army knife complete with amputation blade. The most extreme day meant wading chest deep through the river, wearing only trunks and hiking boots, my ruc sac carried above my head. One interesting feature, quite unique in the world were bridges actually made from live tree routes, that are guided by subtle use of metal cables to span over the river. Each bridge effectively takes up to 20 years to grow (if that is the right word). They are incredibly sturdy and I genuinely felt safer that using the purely wire bridges.
I only stayed for 4 nights but I could easily have stayed for 2 weeks. It wasn't just the scenery and activity it was also the people passing through that made it interested: ameteur cavers, geologists (I volunteered to get them some rocks), Italians with Anthropological interests. I also met this eccentric mono toothed British documentary maker, making a programme for Indian TV accompanied by his friend a would be Indian actor.
I was really sad to leave the place but there was more to explore. I took an overnight bus to Tura in the Garo Hills and left several hours later. I had notions of more trekking but the place just had no tourist infrastructure. Also there was no electricity in the hotel that I had just checked in to and no water. And this was probably the poshest hotel in town. Anyway - you sometimes have to just cut your losses. At least I did get a shave by a cross-eyed barber. At least there was a local microsurgeon next door.
To be continued